Saint Francis Dam Disaster Candlelight Memoral

March 12, 2018 - 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm

A St. Francis Dam Disaster Candlelight Memorial will be held on Monday, March 12, from 7 to 8 p.m., at Ebell Park, at the corner of Main and Seventh streets in Santa Paula, to mark the 90th anniversary of the St. Francis Dam Disaster.

The memorial will be a gathering of the community to remember those who lost their lives in the 1928 dam disaster and to pay homage to the survivors and heroes of the tragedy.

The free event, hosted by the Santa Paula Historical Society, is open to the entire community.

The collapse of the St. Francis Dam, 10 miles north of Santa Clarita, is considered to be one of the worst American civil engineering disasters of the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of life in California history, after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

At least 411 people died along the 54-mile path of destruction from the dam to the Pacific Ocean. Santa Paulans and many other unidentified dead were recovered in the city and are buried in a special section at Santa Paula Cemetery.

“Now, more than ever, it is important for us to remember this path of destruction,” said Edward Arguelles, a retired history teacher of 35 years who serves on the Santa Paula Historical Society board. “It reminds us that life is fleeting and that it can be taken quickly.”

The March 12 memorial will include a sea of yellow, blue and green electric candles in luminary bags representing those who died. Some of the candles will be placed by early arrivals to the event.

Selected students from every Santa Paula school will place 16 candles at Ebell Park, each one representing the identified Santa Paula victims, and a children’s choir will sing at the remembrance.

Peggy Kelly of Santa Paula, who has written extensively about the dam disaster, will present her short documentary video, “Thornton’s Wild Ride! The True, Untold and Unbelievable Story of the Hero of the St. Francis Dam Disaster,” about Police Chief Thornton Edwards, who rode his Indian motorcycle through Santa Paula warning residents about the flood. Also, John Nichols of Santa Paula, author of “St. Francis Dam Disaster,” will talk about “the nature of heroic acts before and after the St. Francis Dam Disaster and how they are unique to that disaster and have similarities to all disasters. It puts us in touch with our basic humanity and connects us with everyone else during the disaster and during the recovery,” he said.

A metal sculpture of two Santa Paula police officers on motorcycles called “The Warning,” at Santa Paula’s 10th and Santa Barbara streets, commemorates the heroic actions of police, telephone operators and community members to warn people of the impending torrent the night the dam burst at 11:57 p.m. on March 12, 1928. The sculpture by Eric Richards was commissioned by the Santa Paula Historical Society and dedicated in March 2003.

The St. Francis Dam was built to create a large storage reservoir for the city of Los Angeles and was an integral part of the city’s water supply infrastructure.

The dam was designed and built between 1924 and 1926 by William Mulholland, manager and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, then known as the Bureau of Water Works and Supply.

The dam failed catastrophically in 1928, about two weeks after it was declared full and 12 hours after Mulholland inspected the dam and declared it safe. The resulting flood swept away portions of Saugus and Castaic before crashing through the Santa Clara River Valley, arriving in Santa Paula at 3:05 a.m. and ending its rampage to the ocean at 5:25 a.m.

Arguelles said the idea for the memorial came to him suddenly as he contemplated an event that would bring the community together. “I was struck by the color of water, candles and light,” Arguelles said, as he imagined an event that would provide “perspective and conceptualization of the magnitude of the disaster.”